September 5, 1972, the Olympic Games from Munich are the scene of a dramatic hostage-taking. Eight Palestinian terrorists from the Black September group will attack the Israeli delegation. When the guns are finally silent, the next day, eleven athletes will have perished. Unprecedented drama, the Munich hostage-taking will subsequently lead security forces around the world to fundamentally review their anti-terrorism procedures. It will also have cast a harsh light on the acuteness of the Palestinian question, which remains unanswered.
The Palestinian armed group Black September has its origins in the events of September 1970 in Jordan, when the Amman army set out to crush the Palestinian Fedayins, which had become a threat to the monarchy. Composed largely of former Fatah and PFLP militants, Black September has ambiguous ties to Yasser Arafat's movement. Breaking with the methods used until then by the Palestinian fighters, this group intends to carry out its fight mainly abroad, that it is against Jordan but also (and above all) against Israel. It organized itself into small, independent cells, a pattern that would later be very successful.
The year 1972 saw members of Black September planning Operation Ikrit and Biram, the name of which refers to two Palestinian villages emptied of their population in 1948 by the Israelis. This operation is intended to be spectacular, capable of striking world opinion. The target is defined from the outset as the Israeli delegation to the Olympic Games in Munich, an event of significant political symbolism. So in the weeks leading up to the games, several members of Black September will infiltrate the Olympic Village after being hired in various minor positions.
First games organized in Germany after the Second World War, the Olympic Games in Munich are for the FRG one of the symbols of its return to the concert of nations. The West German Olympic Committee has therefore paid particular attention to erasing the memory of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Thus to the militarized and ultra-competitive atmosphere of the Nazi games, it opposes an atmosphere of pacifism and international solidarity and this especially for the Israeli delegation (since the mid-1960s, the two states have been in the process of diplomatic rapprochement).
The atmosphere in the Olympic Village is meant to be relaxed, which translates into relatively loose security. This is all the more true with regard to Israeli athletes who are not subject to armed surveillance (for fear of criticism this could cause) and are housed in a building easily accessible from the outside. . This is sure to greatly assist the success of the Black September terrorists.
The Hostage Taking (September 5, 1972)
It is 4.30 am when the eight terrorists of Black September, carrying their weapons (automatic pistols, AKM rifles, grenades) in simple bags enter the Olympic Village. Quickly grabbing the keys to the Israeli delegation's residence, they don their masks and storm the building. Despite resistance from some wrestlers and weightlifters in the delegation (which will cause the death of two of them), they subdue the athletes, most of whom are still sleeping. The Palestinian activists eventually seized 9 hostages and put them together in an apartment, and soon after made themselves known to the general public through their demands. Palestinians from refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, they are calling for the release and transfer to Egypt of 234 militants imprisoned in Israel, as well as that of two members of the Red Army faction imprisoned in Germany. Tel Aviv's response is final, a clear refusal. It is therefore up to the West German authorities to manage the crisis. However, they have little experience of this kind of situation and especially no forces specialized in counterterrorism.
The negotiations which take place reveal the inability of the German authorities to identify the Palestinian militants. Under the watchful eye of the cameras they are offered large sums of money that they do not care about. As (poorly trained) border police surround the building, the Games continue in a surreal atmosphere and will not be suspended until 12 hours after the hostage-taking begins. At the end of the day and with the agreement of Chancellor Willy Brandt, the West Germans finally prepare a rescue plan. The fact that several Israeli athletes were mistreated or injured (some by bullets) made them decide to act. Unfortunately they will base their plan on an incorrect estimate of the number of terrorists (four or five, instead of eight).
A bloody ending
In the early evening, the authorities agreed to escort the Palestinians and their hostages to an air base from where a Boeing 727 could take them to Egypt. To free the Israeli hostages, it is planned to attack terrorists at this military airport, in order to limit collateral damage. Five "snipers" were selected. These police officers, who practice sport shooting, have no experience of this kind of situation ...
When the terrorists and their hostages board the helicopters transporting them to the base at Fürstenfeldbruck, the German police are amazed to see eight armed militants. Arriving at the base around 10:30 p.m., the members of Black September quickly realize that they have fallen into a crass trap. The two men who went to inspect the Boeing found it empty. They then fall back on the helicopters, their hostages and the German pilots. The five German snipers opened fire around 11 p.m., in catastrophic conditions. They have no radio to coordinate, no aiming equipment, no night vision ... and terrorists quickly destroy all the lights in their range.
As a result, the initial fire only killed three Palestinians, the rest managing to keep the hostages in the helicopters (the pilots flee). A German policeman was even shot dead with a stray bullet. More than an hour of erratic gunfight ensued, during which the West Germans painfully transported armored vehicles to the area. These will finally help unblock the situation, but in the worst possible way. At midnight, the terrorists knowing they were lost decide to shoot down their hostages with pistols and grenades. The general assault is then launched. When the fighting ceases half an hour later, nine hostages will have been shot, along with five terrorists (the others are only wounded). No Israeli athlete will have survived the rescue attempt ...
The consequences of the Munich massacre
The hostage-taking, which broke the very symbolic Olympic truce, was immediately condemned by the entire international community, led by Israel. In Germany, it threw Willy Brandt's government into deep embarrassment, which resulted in a complete overhaul of the security services and the birth of the anti-terrorist unit CSG9 (which would inspire the GIGN and many other similar units).
This event of global impact, because highly publicized, will give an undeniable boost to the Palestinian cause, then linked to ultra-left activism. Realizing the stakes that this represented the Israeli government of Golda Meir will react with the greatest firmness. Mossad as part of covert Operation Wrath of God (fictionalized in Steven Spielberg's film Munich) to embark on a campaign of targeted assassinations against those responsible for the hostage-taking and various leaders of the PLO. It will not stop until 1991 ...
As for the 1972 Olympic celebration, it will continue in a strange atmosphere marked by tensions between Arab delegations and Olympic authorities and by the hasty departure of several teams. 36 years after the Nazi Mass in Berlin, Olympism will once again have been held hostage by politics ...
- Israel, Palestine: Truths about a conflict, by Alain Gresh. Plural, 2017.
- Munich, by Steven Spielberg. Fiction, DVD. 2007.